Their faces sometimes twisted in anger, 'tea party' followers have been called neo-Klansmen and knuckle-dragging hillbillies.
To be sure, angry town halls, the N-word thrown at black congressmen, and signs comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler play into the hands of the movement's critics. And demonizing tea party activists tends to energize the Democrats' left-of-center base.
But political experts say that many such criticisms are near-sighted, if not outright inappropriate – and ultimately may miss the point. Indeed, polls suggest that tea party activists are not only more mainstream than many critics suggest, but that a majority of them are women (primarily mothers), not angry white men.
What's more, the release this week of the top three planks of the "crowd-sourced" Contract From America project, to some activists, shows a maturation from sign-wielding protesters to a political reform movement grounded in ideas.
The top three vote-getters among 360,000 respondents on the Contract From America website: Calling for an enumerated powers act to force lawmakers to check the constitionality of new laws; requiring a two-thirds majority in Congress for any tax hike; and a legislative backstop to prevent the EPA from "backdoor regulating."
Tea party: 'Intellectual reform movement?'
"[The ideas in the tea party-coined Contract From America] takes our protest movement and really sets forth a real kind of intellectual reform movement," says Ryan Hecker, a Tea Party Patriots activist in Houston, and a founder of the Contract From America website. "It's a response to the idea that the tea party people don't know what they're fighting about, and it shows there's a real intellectual center to this movement and that we really do have ideas."
The fact that most tea party activists are white, however, may reflect less racial animus against a black president than the fact that white workers – by far the majority in the US population – have seen their plight worsen at dramatic rates, some political experts say.
"[O]pposition to health-care reform from the tea party is not based on racism but self-interest," writes NPR's Juan Williams, who is black, in the Wall Street Journal. "The older, whiter segment of the American demographic was at the heart of opposition to the president's health-care proposal because they feared cuts in their Medicare benefits or tax hikes eroding their income."
Most Americans down on big government
Moreover, polls show that the anger at big government exhibited by tea party protesters is shared by many, if not most, Americans.
A Pew poll in early March found 71 percent of Americans "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today," while a CNN poll showed that 56 percent of Americans are more than just discontented with Washington. Instead, that majority of respondents agreed that the government is "so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens."
Some tea party critics invoke incidents like Joseph Stack’s airplane attack on the IRS office in Austin and the arrest of the antigovernment Hutaree militia this week as evidence of extremist leanings in the broader tea party world. But such charges often don't hold up, says George Michael, an expert on extremism at the University of Virgina's College at Wise.
Extremist groups like the Guardians of the free Republicans, which made news this week after it suggested that all 50 US governors step down or face removal, most often show evidence of "both left-wing and right-wing elements in their worldview," says Mr. Michael. (Also worth noting: Mr. Stack railed against George Bush in his long screed against the IRS and the Toledo Blade reported this week that at least one of the alleged Hutaree militia members is a voting Democrat.)
"The tea party is the middle 50 percent of America that wants good governance and lean more to the right of Barack Obama on economic issues," says Mr. Hecker, the tea party activist. "By calling them bloodthirsty extremists you're kind of alienating a lot of independents that voted for Obama."